CITY BEAT TAMMY TAM
City Beat
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If Hong Kong can’t become ‘Asia’s Israel’, future may rest on leading role in Greater Bay Area plan

Once set on transforming city into tech hub, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is now exploring greater integration with Pearl River Delta neighbours

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2017, 3:24pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 10:39am

“One Belt, One Road” and “Greater Bay Area” are mega projects that may sound like abstract slogans to some, but others are starting to embrace the concepts. Thousands of miles away, in the volatile Middle East, Israel is now actively looking for opportunities in China, including the belt and road initiative, we discovered during a recent trip to the country arranged by its diplomatic mission in Hong Kong.

Israel, steeped in religious history and mired in turbulent, modern-day geopolitics, may be a remote and exotic destination for many Hongkongers, but two of the city’s leaders have visited it for an entirely different reason – to learn from its high-tech development experience.

Tung Chee-hwa was there in 1999 on a trip that he said had inspired him to better develop policies for a high value-added economy. And, 16 years later, in 2015, Leung Chun-ying made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the middle of his lengthy battle with a divided Legislative Council to secure funding for his pet project at the time – setting up a new Innovation and Technology Bureau.

Unfortunately, Tung’s vision met a premature end with his resignation in the middle of his second term. For Leung, although the new bureau was eventually born in late 2015, there’s still a long way to go before the city can claim any significant hi-tech achievement in the current political and social environment. Neighbouring Shenzhen, meanwhile, has taken up the role of southern China’s “Silicon Valley”.

That begs the question: does Hong Kong have what it takes to be transformed into an innovation hub? It remained unanswered throughout our short stay in Israel, where a regular topic in meetings with various start-ups, academics and officials was how Israel could further strengthen economic ties to benefit both sides. That included its participation in Beijing’s belt and road initiative to revive land and maritime trade along the old Silk Route, and in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a founding member.

Meanwhile, Chinese capital and investment has been pouring in over the years. A new port in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod is being built by a Chinese company in a project seen as a big push for the “New Silk Road”. In Tel Aviv, we were introduced to a Chinese company that provides incubation facilities to qualified start-ups aiming for the Chinese market. Then we were told that the majority shareholder in one of the “must buy” skincare brands for many tourists, including those from China, was Shanghai-based Fuson, one of China’s biggest international conglomerates.

This is not to suggest that Israel, known as a “start-up nation”, is a prototype for Hong Kong to imitate, given the totally different DNA of the two business and holiday destinations. Legitimate questions have been raised as to how Hong Kong can play the role of a “super connector” for the belt and road scheme when many countries have already linked up directly with mainland China – like Israel has. However, regardless of the scepticism, the outgoing chief executive still believes in the advantages provided by the city’s financial and legal services.

Now comes a new plan for Hong Kong – Leung is leading a major delegation later this week to six Pearl River Delta cities to learn more about the Greater Bay Area, an ambitious development plan announced by Premier Li Keqiang in March. Leung’s successor, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who has just received her official appointment from Beijing as the city’s next leader, was also reminded of the significance of this project by the premier in a face-to-face meeting. Some mainland academics have even described it as Hong Kong’s “last chance”.

If it is doubtful whether Hong Kong can some day become the “Israel” of this region as a hi-tech hub, then can the city capitalise on its strategic strengths, with its unique “one country, two systems” features, by taking a leading role in the Greater Bay Area initiative? As clichéd as it sounds, we’ll have to wait and see.